Christmas Presence

My seven-year-old son made a grid-like calendar with pencil and computer paper; and he taped it to his wall next to his bed with scotch tape. This happened back in November and I believed he was counting down the days to his December birthday, or maybe even Christmas. I knew he was eagerly anticipating something to be so intentional with that pencil-drawn calendar scotch taped to his wall—each night he faithfully crossed off the day, each morning he accurately recited the date.

But then, his birthday came and went and he kept counting down—I assumed he was waiting for Christmas but I wondered . . . I finally asked him, “what is this thing that you are waiting for?”

He quickly replied, “Mom, you said I would need to wait six weeks until after your surgery before I could give you a big hug again. Every day when I used to get off of the bus, you stood in the front yard waiting for me, and I ran and jumped on you to give you a big welcome-home hug. I really miss that. I am counting down until six weeks after your surgery. I miss you standing in the front yard. I really miss those big hugs.”

My sweet son. My double mastectomy and reconstruction season has kept me from standing in the front yard with big welcome-home hugs every day. In this season, my children have been gently hugging me around my hips. I just had no idea how greatly my son missed my physical presence in the front yard. It seems like such a simple and mundane thing—standing in the front yard with a welcome home hug—but to my child, this mundane thing to me was everything to him.

This is how my children amaze me. They live with child-like excitement and wonder. They make calendars and count down to big welcome-home hugs. Children understand the importance of presence—so much so they want to be in the bathroom with you—children care about snuggles, and hugs, and books read before bedtime, and belly laughs over Apples to Apples. This is a good reminder to me in the busyness and what can feel like the mundane of the holiday season. My children teach me the importance of presence.

It’s not about what we are doing with our children during the holidays—it is about whether or not we are present with them in the moments.  Are we there just physically, or are we there wholly—seeking to enter in to the child-like excitement and wonder?

As I have grown-up, my task list has increased as well as my worries; I sometimes feel the importance of a second cup of coffee greater than the importance of Christmas Presence.

Presence is defined as existing, occurring, or being present in a place or thing. Presence is entering in and engaging with others in the front yard welcome-home hugs of every day life. Presence is wholly living and evidence of holiness—dwelling among the little ones God has given to us.

Christmas Presence is living like Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us), Matthew 1:23.

Jesus came to Earth to give the world the gift of Christmas Presence. As humans we needed a God who would dwell among us. Presence, dwelling, and wholly living are the balm to all the longings of our human hearts—even when we are grown and we all too easily forget—glory is seen in the presence and the dwelling. Glory is seen in a God who knows our humanity because He dwelt among us.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth, John 1:14.

Christmas Presence is the greatest gift. As parents, we get to show this kind of love to our children. I don’t want to been grown and forgetful, I want to be child-like with the kind of excitement that causes me to make a grid-like calendar and scotch tape it to my bedroom wall—I want to long for presence more than I long for more coffee.

I want to live like Jesus with those around me, I want to be present and live wholly. I want to see the beauty of an every day welcome-home hug. Christmas Presence is what our hearts are all longing for, it is why we need a God who would dwell among us. It is children who are sweet reminders of the gift of Christmas Presence—counting down to the simple and important things like welcome-home hugs.

If you have grown and forgotten about Christmas Presence, there is great hope in a God who fully sees you, loves you, died for you, forgives you, and longs for you to return to him. He doesn’t require you to do anything but turn to him, he is waiting with a welcome home hug.

It Takes Courage

“It’s Christmas and we are all in misery.”

A Griswold family famous line from the holiday favorite, Christmas Vacation.

I laugh at this line every time I watch the movie. I laugh because the holidays can induce misery. Unhealed grief resurfaces, we long for broken relationships to be healed, we are reminded of difficult family dynamics, and we see evidence of brokenness in the visual reminder of who is no longer sitting with us around our Christmas Trees. I can’t sing some Christmas songs without big rolling tears running down my cheeks.

It takes courage to face the holidays with a heart-attitude of joy. Human nature is bent toward letting the misery in and rolling around in it for a while—for me, I rolled in misery for decades. In the Bible, Jesus refers to us as sheep, and sheep like stink (John 10). It takes intention to see beauty among the thorns. It takes hope to look forward to the things that are unseen.

Courage

It’s Christmas and we all need some courage. Courage is defined as strength in the face of great pain or grief.

I want to zoom in here on my definition of strength before I go on with courage. Strength is not defined by marching through a hard process without stumbling. Strength is stumbling though the hard things. Strength is falling down, but a continuous forward movement—even in the weariness of life. Strength is found by leaning on God and letting him hold us, even when we can’t hold up ourselves.

Nehemiah 8:10 Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Courage is stumbling towards God in the face of great holiday misery. It takes courage to fight for joy.

The Intention to Live Courageously

Living courageously involves a lot of intention. It takes discipline to find the beauty among the thorns. It takes intention to focus on the beauty and not roll in the enticing stink of holiday misery.

It takes intention to not just simply make it through the holidays, but en-joy the glimpses of beauty among the thorns.

Joshua 1:9 is a verse I tell my children often: Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. This is a verse on how we should live. But Moses tells Joshua in the verse before how to live courageously, with strength. 

Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Joshua 1:8. You cannot live courageously without the spiritual eyes to see the beauty among the thorns. You cannot strengthen your spiritual eyes without knowing who God is by reading his word. This takes intention—this is the intention to live courageously and also an invitation to prosperous living. 

Courage and Hopefulness 

It’s Christmas and we are courageously living because we have hope. There is a reason why we feel the weight of misery during the holiday season. It is a reminder that this world is not the way it is supposed to be. Holiday misery is a reminder that we need the rescuing hope of the gospel. The gospel is simply the truth that we are stumbling, and we need Jesus. We are in misery, but all around us there is hope if we live courageously enough to see it.

Try singing your favorite Christmas Hymn without hearing the gospel. Now that I live intentionally and courageously, I can’t sing a single hymn without singing about the world’s brokenness, misery, and need for saving—and how that saving comes by seeing, with hopefulness, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. He is the beauty among the thorns of this world. We are stumbling, but we can be hopeful because God is making all things new in Jesus.

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world (John 16:33)

Again, the Bible is where you find truth. We can only know what Jesus has said if we read the Bible. But in His words, there is peace—even in times of holiday misery. The world is a place of great tribulation. I miss my mother who passed twenty years ago so much during the holidays, I am estranged from my father because of difficult family dynamics, and I have had a hard season of walking through a double mastectomy and reconstruction. I want to indulge in the pain and the grief, but it takes courage to fight for joy with intention.

It’s Christmas and we may all be in misery, but it takes courage to fight for joy. The beauty among the thorns of this world is a baby found wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. In him there is great power over misery. May you see him through any amount of misery this holiday season.

Silent Night

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm all is bright,
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child,
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth;
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Silent night, holy night,
Here at last, healing light,
From the heavenly kingdom sent,
Abundant grace for our intent.
Jesus, salvation for all.
Jesus, salvation for all.

Silent night, holy night,
Sleeps the world in peace tonight.
God sends his Son to earth below,
A Child from whom all blessings flow.
Jesus embraces mankind.
Jesus embraces mankind.

Silent night, holy night,
Mindful of mankind’s plight,
The Lord in Heav’n on high decreed,
From earthly woes we would be freed.
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.
Jesus, God’s promise for peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born. 
Christ the Savior is born.

Need a Bible for Christmas? I recommend this one: ESV Bible

The Difference Between Mom Guilt & Shame: When We Fail To Love Our Children Well

I am an unraveling perfectionist. This means when I fall short, my human reaction is to wear a very heavy cloak of guilt and shame—I give myself very little grace; naturally, self-contempt has a loud voice within my soul.

What is guilt? Well, we feel guilty when we feel sorry for something we have done. Guilt is the ability to separate action from identity. Think guilty charges and the banging of a gavel. It is a clean, one time banging, the charges are read, and restitution is made at the reading of the verdict.

However, shame is deeper than guilt and ripples like a vibrating gong; there is no clean gavel banging when it comes to shame. Shame is believing that there is not only something wrong with what you have done—the ripple effects of shame infiltrate identity and guilty actions become tangled up in the way we see ourselves as people. Tangled up in shame, our guilty actions begin to define what kind of people we are—what kind of mothers we are.

Mom Fails, Mom Guilt, What Kind of Mother Are You?

One of my sweet children struggles in school. Truthfully, all of my children struggle with school in their own ways, but one of my children has a tougher time than the rest. He is a brilliant child, I have mature conversations with him on a daily basis. He is kind, he is helpful, he loves to chat with adults, he looks you right in the eyes when he speaks, and he loves to learn.

But almost each fall, when I attended his parent/teacher conferences, I would leave the school in tears. Sight words were a struggle, peer relationships were a struggle, spelling made me want to claw my eyes out, skill sheets took hours—my child constantly cried about school and about friends—I believe he was even depressed and struggled with shame attaching to his own identity.

His struggles in school became the way he saw himself. His actions rippled through him like a vibrating gong. He would say things like…

Why am I the worst? Everyone hates me because I am bad.

His bad actions easily turned into a tangled up identity. Guilt says: what I did was bad. Shame says, I am bad.

This breaks my heart, but caused me to take a long hard look in the mirror when it came to how I was dealing with my own mom fails and mom guilt. My personal actions easily become the vibrating gong of what-kind-of-mother-are-you self-contempt and tangle up my mom identity.

As mothers, if we let our shortcomings impact our mom identities, why wouldn’t our children do the same? Children are imitators. They do as you do, not as you say.

So Then, How Should We Live? 

There is hope in the story for that child who struggles a little more than my others in school. This year, my husband and I finally walked through the process of figuring out the missing pieces to the puzzle for our child. This was hard. So hard. But after several years, and trying everything else, we tested our son for ADHD and visual processing disorder.

And guess what? That sweet child of mine struggled with following multiple directions in school—every year, year after year—because his brain was unable to follow multiple directions in school. He is off the charts ADHD. And that same child doesn’t finish his work when copying from the board and struggles with sight words, reversals, and spelling because he has an identified visual processing disorder.

He has been taking a very small dose of methylphenidate at 7:15 every morning for two months. On the first school day he was on his medication he wrote me a note that said:

“Mom, I started my day at 8:10 and I finished my morning work by 8:30. Usually, my morning work sits on my desk unfinished all the way until lunch.” 

That note made me cry. My tears were mixed with happiness and sadness. Happiness for him, and sadness for him because he has struggled for so long.

His confidence is up. His grades are better. His handwriting is better. He seems to be doing better with peer interactions and homework no longer makes me want to claw my eyes out.

There are two personal threads I have needed to unravel from my what-kind-of-mother-are-you self-contempt. This feels like a double-edged mom fail.

One: it is easy for me to get tangled up in the lie that whispers “I am the one who caused this problem for my child.” Maybe, I didn’t breastfeed him long enough, maybe we watched too much television, maybe I didn’t read to him enough, or play with him enough because by the time he was four, he was an older brother to three other siblings. Maybe, I didn’t pray hard enough that his struggles would go away.

Two: The lies that whisper I wasn’t prompt enough in solving this problem. “If I could have just walked through this process when he was in kindergarten, then we would be in a better place academically, socially, and emotionally by now.” I am a trained educator, I should have recognized these signs sooner. I know my child, and I knew something was not right.

There is hope for mom guilt turning into mom shame too. The problem is my sin, the cure is the gospel. We all need the hope of the daily vitamin of the gospel, where we intentionally see ourselves as God sees us as mothers.

I have to be intentional to not let mom fails and mom guilt get tangled up in the way I see myself as a mother. Both of those tangled up lies are self-focused and fail to see the bigger picture of how God sees me, and how God sees my child. Both of those threads fail to see ourselves in light of God’s greater redemption story. Both of these threads look inward, and fail to see outward, onward, and upward.

So then, how should we live? We live by the one time banging of a gavel and not the vibrating sound of a gong. The sound of the gavel is clean and sharp, it may make us flinch, but it doesn’t ripple and infiltrate our identities or the kind of mothers we are.

We do fall short as mothers, (if you haven’t yet—you will) but if God doesn’t hold our shortcomings against us, why would we hold them against ourselves? Living by the one time banging of a gavel, our shortcomings unravel away through repenting (turning away from the action) and believing that God is working even when we don’t have it all figured out.

Don’t live by the gong. We are not are shortcomings. God doesn’t see us that way. If we trust in Jesus and his work on the cross, God sees us as perfect in his sight. We are stumbling on this side of heaven, but we are seen as perfectly loved sons and daughters.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus we are given life and set free (Romans 8:1)

If we love our children so much we could burst in their stumbling, imagine how much more God loves us as we mother our children? We are free to stumble and seen as loved in Christ. The gavel sounded when we first trusted Christ, now we are free to waltz in the gospel and be unraveled from the shame that tangles us.

When we look outward, onward, and upward and live by the gavel and not the gong, we are really free! Mom fails, mom guilt, and mom shame cannot bind us if we are truly trusting in the daily vitamin of the gospel.

Our children will imitate us. Show them how to live by the gavel and not be tangled up by the gong.

 

From Unraveled to Slowly Unraveled: The Stories Behind Writing this Book

I wrote the first draft of Unraveled about five years ago. And I sent it to almost ten people. It was terrible. My friends gave me honest feedback some said Unraveled was cringe-worthy.  I knew Unraveled needed some more fine tuning. The first draft of this project was simply a step towards the making of this book, and the beginning of an idea.

Never give up. Just keep fine-tuning.

There is a verse in the book of Ephesians, Chapter 4:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

One year as I led a study alongside a mentor of mine, I was blown away by John Stott’s teaching on these few verses. It occurred to me that in my life, putting off the old self and putting on the new self is a daily dance and a constant process. We never really arrive in the Christian life. I discovered, once I overcome one layer of sin and selfishness, there seems to always be another layer underneath.

As we grow and mature, we are unraveling old layers of the old self.

Humble Beginnings 

In the spring of 2017, I took a three day trip to the beach—without my husband and my four children—to hone in on the structure of Unraveled.

I spent time reading, praying, and thinking about where Unraveled could start as a book—and where I wanted it to go.

I read two books on that trip. Paul Tripp’s What Did You Expect: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

I read and listened to teaching and storytelling. But I also wrote. And I wrote, and I wrote . . . on an iPad with a keyboard attachment, on the beach in the sun: trying to see the screen through the glare and flipping back and forth between the Microsoft Word App and the ESV Study Bible App.

I wanted to really birth this book on the beach by the ocean. I wanted to write in a place where I felt small in comparison to a big world and a big God who controls the setting of the sun and the rising of the seas. I wanted to write from a place of humility and I wanted to trust that this project would go out into a big world and be held by a big God.

I spoke via email with Karen Hodge on that trip and I enjoyed spending time with my grandparents while I read, wrote, prayed, and slept.

At the beach, the idea to write Unraveled in sections came to me. The book is divided into six sections: Strength, Identity, Perfectionism, Marriage, Parenting, and Grief.

And at the beach, I started to think more deeply about the entire book of Ephesians and how the entire book  went alongside the sections of the book I was dreaming about.

From March 2017-May 2017 I studied Ephesians. I read James Montgomery Boice, John Stott, listened to Tim Keller, and struggled through Peter T. OBrien.

In May of 2017 I was invited to speak at New Vienna Church and I decided to try out my Unraveled stuff with everything I was learning from studying the book of Ephesians.

If I want to be honest about humble beginnings and starting from a place of smallness, here is my rough around the edges talk. The talk starts around 15 minutes and ends around 55 minutes.

In the summer of 2017 I had a real first draft for Unraveled. I sent nine copies out to different people, one copy to my husband, and one copy to a pastor friend.

I learned Unraveled was going somewhere. I learned about the Oxford comma, and I learned I have no idea what the difference is between a comma, a semi colon, an em dash, or parenthesis. I only applied to colleges that did not require an admissions essay—writing has never been my thing.

But teaching, encouraging, and storytelling are my things. So are humble beginnings. So I kept going and learned what I could as I went.

Most of my friends sent Unraveled back to me by August of 2017, and I went through all their notes by the end of that summer.

But then I sat on my draft for six months. I was so afraid to send Unraveled to a publisher and I had no idea where to start. Fear felt big for a time. So I waited.

Sending a Book Proposal

In February 2018 I felt the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s death approaching quickly. I really wanted to publish something before 2018 was over—this was a personal goal I had set for myself.

In February, I sent a draft (at this point read by approximately twenty people) to Karen Hodge and Christina Fox. Karen is a dear friend and mentor of mine, and the Coordinator of Women’s Ministries in our denomination and a published author. Christina Fox is the editor of our denomination’s blog as well as a published author. Both of these women were so encouraging. I was directed to the book proposal page for CDM and a book: Get Published: 11 Must Know Publishing Secrets by Mary DeMuth.

Again, I read and I learned. I fine tuned. I didn’t give up. I wrote proposals. I sent proposals. I never heard back. But one day I heard back.

I was subbing for a teacher who is now my second son’s second grade teacher. I was sitting at her desk during lunch, registering for our denomination’s national meeting, General Assembly, and texting with my friend Eileen about the details for the trip. All of a sudden I received an email that CDM received my book proposal and I would hear back in six to eight weeks.

Shock is an understatement here. When I talked to my husband about this I said, “CDM will never publish my book.”

Then, I prayed and I waited a little bit more. And I continued to revise.

This year  I decided to go on a trip to the beach with my family for the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s passing. April 7th, 1998 is the day she passed away and each year April 7th is a dark day for me. To break the cycle of sadness, I wanted to go to the beach, a place my mom loved, and I place I have sweet memories of mom mom from years past.

On my way to the beach, on April 7 2018, the twentieth anniversary of my mother’s passing—l was in the car at a restroom break somewhere in Georgia—I got an email from CDM saying that they would love to partner with me and publish the story, Unraveled.

The detail of this email coming on such an important day is a detail I will never forget to highlight. God cares for us in the small things and in a small way April 7th has been redeemed for me. On April 7, 1998 my mother passed away and on April 7, 2018 I received an email communicating that Unraveled would be published.

And the title change . . . 

From Unraveled to Slowly Unraveled. I have written this on my blog before and I will write it again: I still order chicken nuggets, fries, and a coke with no ice at McDonald’s because I am the kind of person who does the same thing all of the time. Change is not light and easy for me. So a title change was rough. I had so many layers to unravel when it came to the expectations I had for a one word title.

But, if you search Unraveled in Books on Amazon, turns out you will find a lot of books with title covers picturing men wrapped up in ropes. This is not the image we were hoping to capture with Unraveled.

I think our team suggested up to twenty alternative titles. But Slowly Unraveled: Changed From the Inside Out came as my sweet and smart editor was reading my final chapter.

And it is a true, noble, worthy, and fitting title. It is humble. And it is good. Because any kind of true change happens slowly. Any kind of process worth going through takes time, it takes a whole lot of not giving up, and it takes a village of people to help you fine tune. This book has been a Slowly Unraveling process and I am so proud this is the title of the book.

In the process, about thirty more people have read Slowly Unraveled. So now this community project is up to about fifty people. Some (Marlys and I) have read it more than hundred times . . . we are both Slowly and thoroughly Unraveled, but so pleased to share this book with you.

Find it in the PCA Bookstore on January 10th.

I’d love to come to your town for a book signing event! Message me soon.

Thank you for being alongside me on this long, Slowly Unraveled journey. Each of you have encouraged me to never give up and keep fine-tuning. I am thankful for you!

 

Hiccups

I hate getting the hiccups. As a woman who loves routine and predictability—hiccups are an annoyance and a disruption to my plans.

But even though hiccups seem like an annoyance, hiccups are necessary to correct something that is not right within the diaphragm and hiccups are temporary.

This morning I am experiencing a real life hiccup. An annoyance and a disruption in my recovery. I have been feeling so great and everything has seemed to be going well, but on Saturday when I went to get ready for the two kid birthday parties we were hosting in our home, I noticed a problem with one of my incisions.

My doctor texted me right away and saw me first thing this morning. In less than an hour I will be in a pre op surgery room again. A hiccup. Necessary to repair what is not right, and temporary.

Thanks for thinking of us today. I feel annoyed by this hiccup, but I am hoping to find joy in this unpredictable chaos. This is another reminder that I do not control the world nor do I hold it up. God holds up the world, and he is good. Even in the hiccups.

 

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.